EZG reviews Trapsmith
This book by Kobold Press is 70 pages long, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial/ToC, 1 page SRD, 1 page advertisement, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 65 pages of content, so let’s take a look, shall we?
So this is it – the long overdue “big” book of traps for PFRPG – big in quotation marks, btw., because I consider the total page-count not that massive for the topic of traps, especially since it’s a topic not covered by that many supplements. After a short introduction, we are introduced to a taxonomy of traps, including a flow-chart. Now if you think that’s superfluous, I’d still recommend checking it out. Why? Because trap-placement requires careful deliberation. I can see your unbelieving scowls right now – but think about it: How many times when you’ve designed complexes have your players questioned the exact benefit of a trap at a given place? Traps are more than hp-depleters, they should make sense within the context of a given structure’s defense and whether it’s active or passive, boon, bane, ward or alarm – the right tool for the right place should literally be the maxim. Carelessly dumped traps can incredibly fast suck the believability out of any given complex and annihilate suspension of disbelief faster than Batman failing to solve a Scooby-doo mystery. The same can go for inordinate scaling of traps – hence the importance of the concisely-worded scaling advice that directly follows this.
Now if you’re a DM with some experience under your belt, you may be directly or indirectly aware of some points mentioned here, but providing a short introduction for trap-using PCs (hello Rangers and e.g. Drop Dead Studios’ Vauntgaurd or Purple Duck Games’ Runecasters…) should definitely help with both immersion and your player’s capability – especially since from a crossbow barricade to alchemical bombardment and alarms a couple of sample traps are provided, including information on how to scale them via various upgrades. These scant few pages should be considered required reading for trap-using PCs.
And then we’re off to the traps. Traps, traps and then…even more traps. First of all, let me mention that, yes, we get relatively “simple” traps like caltrops being dropped from the ceiling and the like – these may be neat. Where the pdf trumps, though, would be with its depiction of the more complex traps – take for example a forceful hand bull-rushing you into a collapsing wall (after taking crushing damage, of course!) and squeezing you to a pulpy mess. Several of the traps herein feature expertly-drawn schematics that make envisioning how these complex traps work actually very easy – at times even with a step-by-step run-down of how they work. Not only does this make picturing the traps much easier, the pencil-drawings actually are glorious renditions that instantly evoke a sense of old-schoolish nostalgia while still fitting seamlessly within the gorgeous full-color layout -quite a feat, I might add! On the content-side, escalating dangers and further modifications allow for the traps to be reused as variants and also for customization of skill-checks by level, further increasing the value of this pdf.
Now don’t expect all classic traps here – while there is nothing on the sadism-level of the infamous grimtooth-traps herein, a pivoting trapdoor that also features walls of fire in the pit and an orb that drains lifeforce and confers the advanced creature template to foes are just two examples of the nefarious traps herein and from deadly spores to black aether some hazards/special substances also add their value to the overall collection. Now it should also be noted that not all of the traps deserve praise – there is some filler here and there as well: Song of discord? That’s it? No cool harmonica/similar physical representation? Come on! A table with a button to slice guests to ribbons? Rather trite. Essentially, as neat as many of these traps are, chances are that with some DM-experience you’ll recognize quite a few of them or at least won’t be that blown away by some of them. Now don’t get me wrong – in 3.X the amount of traps herein would have been more than adequate, but since in PFRPG Raging Swan Press has provided multiple-rounds-spanning traps galore (which can be disabled/survived via other means than disable device/saving/not being hit) and since e.g. T.H. Gulliver delivered #30 Traps for Tombs and since similar offerings are out there, these traps, while very good, still feel like they don’t 100% stand up to them… and I’d be complaining about that endlessly.
BUT that’s not where the book stops (which is incidentally also the reason you read my complaining not in the conclusion) – instead, we first get advice on layering multiple traps. DMs, read this section, memorize it and properly apply it – even relatively conservative components like “Spikes” and “Pits” can easily be shaped into a varied and interesting cornucopia of pain when properly combined – if you need a case-study, jus recall the devious pit traps in the by now classic first installment of “Shackled City” …
Where the book starts to SHINE, blindingly so, would be with the next chapter – themed trap areas (we’re at page 35 by now – just to give you an idea of how concise the writing here is…). We get 3 exceedingly complex traps – and HERE we have the multiple round-by-round benefits I was missing before, the skill-DCs to jump on e.g. a swinging pendulum, the options to use various skills to claim necessary pieces of information to best the traps – in short traps that can’t be boiled down to save or suck and which are rather challenge the whole party in unique and intriguing ways. My only regret is that I would have loved to see more of them – glorious indeed!
Starting on page 39, we delve into the exploits of one Gavin the Trapsmith, whom regulars of the KQ-blog will recall undoubtedly. In this chapter, the informative and surprisingly well-written crunch of traps is prefaced by nice prose that makes this chapter a thoroughly enjoyable reading experience. The traps per se are nothing to smirk at either and contain some rather… let’s say interesting choices. Take a net filled with cheese. Yes. Cheese. If you spring the net, you ignite flammable oil which promptly melts the cheese, burns the rope and douses you in scalding, smelly cheese – a disgusting fate to be sure – and a hilarious one. On the more devious side – what about a combined smokescreen that also colors a foe blue and then chains him/her/it to a barrel and ejects said barrel into the waves to drown while being harder to spot? This is devious thinking. Nasty. Insidious. I like it! In fact, this whole chapter drips with ideas I consider not only smart, but which actually had me grin my most malicious DM-grin.
Speaking of DM-grin – the next chapter is all about trick locks – 10 to be precise, to frustrate cocky rogues with both special constructions and locks – and no, not going into details here – rogue players will have to determine their properties the hard way…
From page 53 to 56 we are introduced to system-neutral items and tricks – and honestly, after all these glorious chapters and ideas, this whole chapter feels out of place. So there are boots that let you hover over the floor and become ethereal. Nice. No costs, no durations, no caster level, just a general idea on how common they are. Wut? Why? Seriously? Statting them in any system from 0e to PFRPG is almost insultingly easy – and yes, I can see how that’s the point – they don’t “require” hard stats. Any DM worth his/her salt could make them. But honestly – why should we when this book is supposed to be for PFRPG, if we pay money for it? The whole book so far is PFRPG. Why chicken out here? Why not provide proper pricing/item-stats? It just feels lazy to me or like some kind of alibi to incite users of other rules-sets to get this -which is simply unnecessary: The traps herein live mostly from their ideas and should be easily converted into other rules-sets, rendering this whole chapter even more moot. Now if the ideas per se were glorious, I’d let slip what I’d consider trying to wiggle around item statblocks/crafting-rules, but they honestly aren’t that high-concept or intriguing. Thankfully, this thoroughly disappointing chapter is not long – still, it left a bitter taste in my mouth.
Next up would be a module for 6th level characters, the “Whispers of Wyrmwood”- thus, from here on reign the SPOILERS. Potential players should jump to the conclusion.
Still here? All right, this module is essentially a short dungeon crawl that has the players try to infiltrate the warrens of an abyssal kobold called Kwipek – one that seeks to change the entire kobold-race via the arc of ascension and transform his brethren into higher beings – like his own twisted self. His complex is studded, as befitting of kobolds, studded with traps and with information and statblocks provided, the respective kobolds not only can benefit from DMs being guided to portray a coordinated, intelligent defense, but also from the nice builds themselves. The complex comes with a b/w-map, but unfortunately no player-friendly version has been provided as per the writing of this review. Story-wise, there’s not that much going on, but that’s okay – it’s still a fun little trap-heavy crawl.
The pdf concludes with an appendix listing traps by CR (1 – 35, btw!) and one listing traps in alphabetical order – great to see since appendices are of tantamount importance for the usability of books like this.
Editing and formatting are top-notch, I didn’t notice any crucial glitches or issues. Layout adheres to Kobold Press’ beautiful two-column full-color standard and the artwork, apart from the full color cover-artwork, are superb B/W-pencil-drawings by James Keegan. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience.
Urks. Sometimes being a reviewer is just plain hard. Author Maurice de Mare has crafted a supplement that is not only useful, but also should be considered one of the supplements that is guaranteed to see use upon purchase – quite a bit of it, actually. And oh boy, did some chapters of this book excite the heck out of me – grinning from ear to ear is not something a lot of books manage. On the other hand, the overall quality of the book just fluctuates wildly, more so than in most supplements I’ve read. From imaginative, cool traps to filler to awesome rooms and fluffy, enjoyable, devious traps to utterly useless, relatively uninspired system-neutral bits that are only present due to either an unwillingness to do the crunch-work or to rope in users of other systems and a rather conservative module that feels a bit unnecessary, this supplement took me from the highest peaks to the lowest dales and back up.
So let’s break it up. The module is not bad, but it’s also nothing particularly special. I don’t object to its inclusion, it’s a nice romp, but I feel that more traps would have filled the space better. I’m also the last one to object to system-neutral content – the amount of excellent ratings I handed out to system-neutral supplements or fluff-only-pdfs should make that clear. What I object to is that this chapter feels like a foreign, alien object in this book – there is no reason for it to be in here. Its ideas are not that special either and the absence of fluff makes these 3 pages feel like wasted space.
Yes. 3 pages. I want to emphasize that. I’m only complaining this vehemently about these 3 pages. The vast majority of this book features excellent pieces of advice and above all…TRAPS! Devious, glorious, insidious traps. And yes, some of them may be considered filler. The vast majority, though, are actually ingenious, cool traps. Veterans may see some old acquaintances here and there, but even I got some new tricks out of the “simple” traps in this book. Now that the complex ones are simply stellar should have become readily apparent from my earlier gushing, so let’s end this, shall we?
I’m writing these final lines 3 weeks after having finished my second draft of the review. I’ve read this book 4 times by now and still, settling on a final verdict is hard. For novice and less-experienced DMs, this is a veritable treasure-trove, a cornucopia of death and should be considered a more than neat offering well worth the investment. For expert-level pro-DMs with years upon years (and trapbooks!) under their belt, this pdf should still have something to offer – which is a feat in and of itself. The excellent contents herein balance out the less inspired slip-ups that have crept in. Still, I can’t help but feel that a tighter focus, i.e. minus adventure and the inexplicably uninspired system-neutral chapter, plus more traps, would have helped the book, as would have e.g. some new ranger traps or a collated chapter on “common” trap-modifications – different coatings for spikes, different slings, the like – something more trap-centric, perhaps more tools for trapsmithing PCs? Perhaps a chapter of truly sadistic ones?
Now don’t get me wrong – these traps herein are delightfully insidious, nasty and will have your PCs CURSE their adversaries/complexes. But the book also delivers less than author Maurice de Mare’s talent (judging from the other content) could deliver. This book is close to being the definite resource on traps, it is evident that it could have been THE book for traps/trapsmithing – a mark it misses due to its focus being slightly askew. It’s a good book on traps, one mostly suffused with excellence that stumbles here and there…and one that shows that a potential sequel could be THE one. Now don’t take this as a negative criticism, but rather see it as a testament to how well this book performs in its more glorious entries – this IS a good buy, in fact, one I’d recommend to make a sequel/more trap-books of this quality more likely.
In the end, I have decided on settling for a final verdict of 4.5 stars rounded down to 4 that essentially consists of 5-star+seal-worthy components and less than stellar blemishes as well as a significant amount of well-crafted, good ideas – resulting in the appropriate, fair rating for a good book that is quite close to being stellar.
You can get this neat trap-based supplement here on OBS!